I thought it was time to bring an international flavour to my musings. A man that loves horse racing. A golfing tragic with game to match. It’s December and I’m not sure there’s a better place in the world to be than Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China. I was on a mission to experience a selection of the world-renowned sporting joys that this sliver of the world delivers, and to pinch a few practices that would be handy in Australia.
Arriving on the evening of 4 December, it was straight to Happy Valley for the International Jockey’s Championships meeting.
On 7 December we are driven to the Mission Hills Golf Resort for a round at the Vijay Course. The next morning, we played the Faldo Course.
Back in Hong Kong, and on 8 December it was the trip’s highlight, the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin.
The flight home left on the evening of 9 December. Amongst the golf and the racing was a junk ride on Hong Kong Harbour, the semi-finals of the Hong Kong Squash Open, and tour of Queen Elizabeth Stadium.
A sporting extravaganza packed into less than a week (along with a million dumplings and Peking ducks).
Part 1 of my story is about the golf.
Golf at Mission Hills in Shenzhen
According to its website, Mission Hills is China’s highest rated golf and leisure resort, and the world’s largest golf club according to the Guinness World Records. The complex includes twelve 18-hole courses, and hosts tournaments such as the World Cup of Golf and the Asian Amateur Championship.
I’ll be honest. Mission Hills was too challenging for a hacker like me. Still loved every second of it. From the manicured course presentation to the luxurious club house and golf experience via the knowledgeable caddies (and their wee helmets) and the first class service of all staff. My contribution was about 20 golf balls and six litres of tears. Don’t let that put you off though.
What can our golf industry learn from the East?
There is a challenge generating an adequate return on capital on the golf assets in Australia. The traditional club membership model faces strong competition from quality pay-for-play courses. Membership waiting lists are a thing of the past in most instances. Our society is time poor, and golf is suffering from the commitment required to play a round. All the while, costs of labour and maintenance continue to rise. The golf industry is seeking new opportunities in a very crowded entertainment and leisure market.
Whilst I doubt the opulence of Mission Hills could (or should) be replicated in Australia, the hospitality and service they offer got me thinking about the opportunities for the Australian golf sector.
Using Victoria as the example, can you imagine the potential of golfing tours through the famous ‘Sand Belt’ (Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Metropolitan, Huntingdale, Yarra Yarra, Commonwealth, et al)? In close proximity to the Sand Belt, the Mornington Peninsula provides quality golf in a coastal setting (Portsea, Sorrento, The Dunes, St Andrews Beach, Moonah Links, etc). On the western side, the Bellarine Peninsula (Barwon Heads, Thirteenth Beach, etc.) provides another precinct of exceptional courses. Then there are the numerous tracks on the Murray River (with many other great golf courses dotted around the State). The support infrastructure of accommodation, transfers and hospitality is in place. After all, Victoria has a busy major events calendar (amongst other natural attractions), regularly bringing visitors into the State.
Australia really is a golfing utopia, and all the States of Australia have their treasure chest of gems. I’m not sure most understand how lucky we are with the affordability and access to premium courses in this country. All that is missing is the foresight, entrepreneurship and cooperation to better leverage this competitive advantage. The last feature is the most critical.
Understanding there are differences in the structure of the economies between Australia and China (particularly with labour conditions), there are still things to be learned from my Mission Hills experience:
Industry approved / aligned all inclusive Golf tour packages all year round are a minimum requirement
While there are tour operators out there offering reasonable service, these are disparate. Services such as http://www.iseekgolf.com are also a repository and disseminator of golf information, yet I’m not sure they necessarily are focused on international tourism, and whole-of-sector outcomes (and nor are is the service designed to be). Mission Hills is all contained in terms of golf, accommodation and hospitality. The service to organise the transfer from Hong Kong and the golf package was simple and easy. What I am suggesting is something in advance of this. I envisage and golf sector-owned solution.
Offer caddies of diverse linguistic backgrounds, especially of Asian origin
Caddies are a great ‘value-add’, especially for the keen golfer. Many of our courses are challenging, and knowledge of the layout and local custom is a great selling point. We have thousands of international students in this country. Whilst there may be visa constraints to overcome, this could be a mechanism to better integrate international students into Australian society whilst servicing golf tourists. Alternatively, the teaching of Asian languages is prominent in our primary and secondary schools. What better way to apply those skills? With pre-bookings as the norm, hopefully such a transportable workforce could be managed. The caddies at Mission Hills knew the basics – the names of clubs, yardages, the place to aim, uphill or downhill, left or right. It wouldn’t necessarily be more complex than that.
Investment in golf carts
Golf carts would be an expensive investment for some organisations. However it will be a prerequisite for a course / club wanting to be part of the tourism experience for international visitors.
Mission Hills’ clubhouses showcased golf fashion and equipment. Again, whilst replicating the opulence would not be advised, an upgrade on the tired pro-shop offerings could be a lucrative investment when you have a captive market of international visitors with dollars to spend.
The celebrity factor
We should better celebrate the stars and celebrities that frequent the relevant clubs and courses. Many courses in Australia already do this well. Such features were prominent at Mission Hills, especially with the famous golfers that designed the 12 tracks.
To facilitate the former, our clubs might have to make themselves more inclusive to guests. Many of our clubs have beautiful, underutilised clubhouses. Relax the rules a bit. Open them up. The way I see it, it should be a privilege for the us to have these visitors at our clubs and courses. For too long, we have treated visitors as if the privilege is all theirs. I know that is a throw-back to the past. And in the past, golf clubs were more sustainable than they are now.
What can be done?
Whilst some clubs and privately owned courses are quite progressive, many operate in a bubble of days of yore. Prestige is an asset that only few can rely on and as time goes by, that few becomes less and less. So why isn’t the golf sector more proactive? Why don’t Golf Australia, clubs and privately owned courses form a cooperative with a view to establishing a golf tourism offering focusing on the international market? For recognition and support, submissions could be made to the various State Government tourism authorities. Alliances could be established with the travel service industry. A coordinated approach can benefit not only a greater number of golf stakeholders, but also those business servicing the tourism sector.
Now it would be easy for the golf clubs and Golf Australia to not challenge existing members with new ideas such as this. Those with an understanding of the golf sector know that the lifeblood of the industry, the club members, are also the biggest roadblock. However, the negative trends in the sector could become irreversible without change. At a minimum, new revenue streams are required. Now this could mean members might have to bear having interlopers on their course. So what? Now members of golf clubs are renowned for saying ‘no’, but they are also renowned for spending less and less in the pro shop and the club house (notwithstanding prepaid bar tabs). If the alternative is the gradual decline of a golf club, members should really be ready to embrace new initiatives (or move aside to allow progress to pass).
This could be an opportunity for the sector to come together to work with Government to develop a holistic tourism offering. The infrastructure is in place. What is needed is coordination amongst golf stakeholders, formal approaches to the relevant layers of Government, and the establishment of commercial relationships with the travel service industry. A financial investment in the short term is also inevitable.
The final word
Whilst golf tourism mightn’t be the saviour of Australia’s golf clubs and courses, it is a move towards increased utilisation and yields for our premium clubs and privately owned courses. It is also an opportunity to generate scale so benefits can be shared and grown amongst the game’s stakeholders. For too long golfing tourism has been the domain of small operators, with the wider sector not deriving the benefits.
So the club members out there that hate visitors on their courses, open your arms and lose the scowls. Embrace globalisation for the betterment of your club and the sport.